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Area schools report high absenteeism

by JOSH MCDONALD
Staff Reporter | September 23, 2021 9:45 AM

School districts across the country are still battling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while a return to remote learning is the last thing anyone wants — some regional schools are making that tough call.

Last week, the Mullan School District sent their elementary school students home due to several staff members and some students testing positive for the coronavirus.

MSD Superintendent Les Wells decided to close John Mullan Elementary School for a week in order to get people healthy, which included the students moving temporarily into remote learning.

Earlier this week, the decision was made by the St. Maries School District to shut down all facilities and activities until Oct. 10 due to a high number of positive cases of the virus.

Both the Kellogg and Wallace School Districts have been reporting regular positive cases of COVID-19, both in the staff and students, but no closures have been announced — however, both Superintendents Todd Howard and Lance Pearson are watching their districts and the surrounding districts very closely.

Throughout the Wallace School District, Howard has seen absences of roughly 10% of his staff and 13% of his total student body.

According to Howard, student absenteeism is something he and his administration look at on a case-by-case basis.

“Student absenteeism in a specific classroom, grade level or school reaching 25% becomes a concern,” Howard said. “At that point, the district administrative team begins to have daily conversations on how we move forward day by day. Depending on the scale of overall absences, we would look at doing short-term closures for a specific classroom, grade level, span of grades or school.”

If a school can reduce transmission to a specific classroom, cohort group or anything of that nature, it can allow them to keep their school open and only send those specific students home until they either can show a negative test, or any symptoms subside.

Staff absenteeism is the bigger issue here as schools require a full staff in order to run smoothly, this includes the teachers and administrators, but also extends to the behind the scenes staff in the kitchen, custodial and transportation departments.

This issue is also affected by another issue, one that all of our local districts are struggling with.

“Another limiting factor in staff absences is the lack of available substitutes,” Howard said. “Currently the WSD is short four-to-10 substitutes a day. The district continues to search for applicants willing to be part of our staff as hourly and certificated staff substitutes.”

The Kellogg School District is experiencing the lowest number of student absences at just 10%, but is experiencing positive cases at each of the four facilities in the district.

Pearson is hopeful that he won’t have to make any difficult decisions regarding staying open or closing buildings.

“We have encountered a few documented cases of COVID at each school,” Pearson said. “We applaud and support the schools, like Mullan and St. Maries, for having the courage to take the appropriate action to keep their learning communities safe. At this time, we have no plans on any type of closure and we are not trending in that direction. Of course, that can all change overnight.”

As vaccination efforts continue to be rolled out throughout the U.S., Idaho remains near the bottom of the list with just 41% of eligible recipients being reported as fully vaccinated.

It was also released earlier this week that the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine showed positive results in children aged 5-11 years old, and may have authorization through the FDA to begin administering vaccinations by the end of October.

Both schools keep regular updates on their respective social media pages, which will provide the most up to the minute information on each respective district.

For more information on your local school district, call the Kellogg School District at 208-784-1348, the Mullan School District at 208-744-1126 or the Wallace School District at 208-753-4515.

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Howard